Not-so-great ex­pec­ta­tions: A hot take­off and poor fuel plan­ning


Flying - - CONTENTS - By Bruce Fal­stein

About halfway be­tween San Fran­cisco and Los An­ge­les, in Cal­i­for­nia’s vast Cen­tral Val­ley, lies Har­ris Ranch, an un­likely and wel­com­ing is­land on an oth­er­wise un­in­ter­rupted sea of drab and dusty farm­land.

The “ranch” is ac­tu­ally a com­plex of steak restau­rants, a ho­tel, gas sta­tion and other ameni­ties de­signed as a des­ti­na­tion rest stop for driv­ers on In­ter­state 5, the busy as­phalt rib­bon stretch­ing from Mex­ico to Canada. De­pend­ing on which way the wind is blow­ing, the hot, dry air can be pun­gent with the heady aroma of the ranch’s vast feed­lot, where thou­sands of head of beef cat­tle await their cer­tain doom and whence its dizzy­ing ar­ray of thick, fresh USDA steaks de­rives.

For avi­a­tors, Har­ris Ranch is home to a 2,800-foot lighted run­way and plenty of free tiedowns, mak­ing it a pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tion for the $100 ham­burger, or in this case, the $150 rib-eye.

On this par­tic­u­lar July day, the tem­per­a­ture hov­ered around 108 de­grees, with a hot west­erly breeze blow­ing more or less down Run­way 32. With no

weather-re­port­ing fa­cil­ity avail­able, I an­tic­i­pated that the high den­sity al­ti­tude, com­bined with a rel­a­tively short run­way, might chal­lenge the 180 hp Sky­hawk with three well-fed adults aboard. So I made the de­ci­sion not to add fuel, pre­cisely cal­cu­lat­ing our fuel burn back to Santa Rosa, about 182 nm north­west. More on that in a mo­ment.

The pi­lot’s op­er­at­ing hand­book in­di­cated that, even at a tem­per­a­ture of 104 de­grees Fahren­heit, there would be enough pave­ment to al­low 550 pounds of pas­sen­gers and 24 gal­lons of fuel to lift off and gain suf­fi­cient al­ti­tude be­fore reach­ing the el­e­vated free­way over­pass a cou­ple hun­dred yards past the de­par­ture end of Run­way 32. What the POH failed to men­tion was the dif­fer­ent pitch “pic­ture” re­quired to climb out on such a hot day.

As we ac­cel­er­ated to ro­ta­tion speed, my eyes were glued to the di­min­ish­ing amount of pave­ment ahead of us. I pulled the yoke back and felt the lum­ber­ing plane lift off, just as the run­way dis­ap­peared and was re­placed by the siz­zling de­sert­like sand and sage­brush that dom­i­nate the sur­round­ing land­scape. Re­lieved to be aloft, I was jolted by the sud­den whine of the stall horn. A quick glance at our air­speed showed us flirt­ing with 50 — a good 10 knots slower than the ro­ta­tion speed I’d ob­served just sec­onds be­fore. In­stinc­tively, I dropped the nose, qui­et­ing the stall warn­ing but now align­ing us with the broad­side of an 18-wheeler on the I-5 over­pass. Maybe it was the heat dis­tort­ing the im­age, but that trac­tor-trailer looked 30 feet tall.

With a vis­ual pic­ture much closer to cruise than nor­mal take­off at­ti­tude, we man­aged to clear the semi with room to spare and were on our way. Our di­rect route to Santa Rosa would take us through San Fran­cisco’s Class B airspace. In the dozens of trips I’ve made over the city, I’ve never been de­nied the Bravo tran­si­tion, and had no rea­son to sus­pect any­thing dif­fer­ent this time. Which is why I planned a flight with just 24 gal­lons of fuel on board — light enough to take off with just enough for the two-hour flight, a mod­er­ate head­wind and a dou­ble-than-le­gal one-hour re­serve. When the NorCal ap­proach con­troller failed to ut­ter the magic words “cleared into Bravo” and

In­stinc­tively, I dropped the nose, qui­et­ing the stall warn­ing but now align­ing us with the broad­side of an 18- wheeler on the I-5 over­pass. Maybe it was the heat dis­tort­ing the im­age, but that trac­tor- trailer looked 30 feet tall.

handed us off, we were al­ready un­der the Class B shelf. When the next con­troller abruptly ad­vised us to re­main out­side Bravo, my fuel cal­cu­la­tions pred­i­cated on di­rect rout­ing were sud­denly in­valid. We turned north­ward, dropped down to 4,500 feet to re­main below the ap­proach­ing layer of the up­side-down wed­ding cake and added a good 10 min­utes to our route as we flew just out­side the Class B perime­ter.

Now my eyes were glued to the un­trust­wor­thy fuel gauges, both danc­ing around the five-gal­lon mark. By the time the sec­ond low-fuel warn­ing light il­lu­mi­nated, Santa Rosa was in sight. Out of cu­rios­ity I dipped the tanks af­ter our nor­mal land­ing and was heart­ened to find about seven gal­lons — within the 30-minute day­time VFR re­quire­ment but less than my one-hour per­sonal min­i­mum.

I learned two valu­able lessons on this flight. First, con­firm­ing take­off per­for­mance in the POH with the amount of avail­able run­way is nec­es­sary but not suf­fi­cient. Other vari­ables, such as ex­ceed­ingly hot weather, re­quire changes to what we usu­ally ex­pect — in this case, pitch at­ti­tude on climb-out. My sec­ond les­son that day also con­cerned ex­pec­ta­tions, this time about rout­ing and the need to add an ex­tra mar­gin of fuel for when things don’t go ex­actly as planned.

Har­ris Ranch may be a de­li­cious lunchtime des­ti­na­tion (es­pe­cially with the 10 per­cent dis­count they of­fer to those ar­riv­ing by air), but when things don’t go quite as ex­pected, the af­ter­taste can be un­pleas­ant.

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